We can’t always protect our sons from sexual assault. But we can help them heal. Here is how to begin.
When we, as parents, envision the litany of horrible things that can happen to our children, few of us imagine the possibility that our sons will be sexually assaulted. Yet, one in six boys is victimized by a sexual predator before their 18th birthday. Our sons are in danger of many types of sexual crimes, ranging from someone exposing themselves to them, to being groped or even raped.
While we do all we can to protect our sons, sometimes dangers that we cannot foresee storm into their lives, causing horrible damage. If our boys are sexually assaulted we must take immediate action. Not addressing the assault can have severe consequences. Ninety percent of adults struggling with drug and alcohol addictions were sexually assaulted as children. Eighty percent of prisoners were victims of sexual predators in their youth.
Men abused as children deal with recovery differently than women. There is often greater stigma and shame for male survivors because our society has a rigid definition of what it means to be a man. Having been sexually assaulted doesn’t fit into that definition. For this reason alone, our sons will often have a much harder road to recovery than our daughters may have.
Without intervention after a sexual assault, our sons are at risk of significant difficulties later in their lives. To help with their initial healing, as well as to mitigate possible future consequences from their experience, there are five things you must do as soon as you know your son has been assaulted.
Take him to a licensed professional therapist for evaluation.
Preferably you will find someone who specializes in childhood trauma. If your son is ten or younger I strongly recommend choosing a professional who uses play therapy. At that age, play is the language of children, rather than spoken words. Even if your son says he’s fine. Even if you think it isn’t necessary. Take him. Let a specialist evaluate your son. A good therapist will let you know if they think he’s coping well and needs no further professional help. They can also give you tips and advice for helping him recover.
Provide many opportunities for your son to talk about his assault and what he’s thinking and feeling about it.
Don’t insist he talk about it if he isn’t ready. But when he is, listen. And listen. And listen some more. Do at least twice as much listening as you do talking. You needn’t worry about “fixing” everything. More than anything, he needs you to hear him, answer his questions, and reassure him that he’s now safe and whole.
Express your emotions outside of his presence.
You will be angry, even enraged. You may also feel frustrated, helpless and overwhelmed. All of those are valid emotions to feel when your son is sexually victimized. But his emotional plate is full right now. He doesn’t need to worry about how you are feeling. If you blow up in front of him it may both frighten him and leave him feeling responsible for upsetting you. Then he will be less likely to share with you again about the assault. Instead, he’ll be more likely to feel guilty about upsetting you. That’s an emotional burden he doesn’t need to carry.
Let him heal on his own timetable.
Children are unique individuals with their own needs, thoughts, and responses to trauma. He may recover quickly. Or he may struggle for months to regain his footing. There are many complexities involved in trauma recovery. Don’t expect him to “snap out of it” before he’s ready. Nor should you follow him around asking, “Are you sure you’re okay?” over and over when he’s repeatedly told you that he is.
Along those same lines, be prepared to revisit the topic of his assault in the future. Don’t assume this is a “one and done” process. When he hits a new stage in life, adolescence in particular, he may have questions or concerns that he didn’t previously have. Be open to those new issues and particularly sensitive to issues of a sexual nature. An early sexual assault can bring up a lot of anxieties when your son reaches puberty especially around the aspect of sexuality. Society is going to be giving him so many negative messages about who he is as a survivor of sexual assault. Be a safe person to whom he can bring any and all questions and concerns.
Respect that this is your son’s experience.
His story is his to tell should he choose to do so. Don’t take that from him by sharing the details and circumstances of his assault without his permission. He may still be very young, but at some point I assure you it will be painful for him is the story of his sexual assault has been the topic of a Thanksgiving dinner table discussion. Don’t violate your son’s trust by sharing with anyone, other than those who absolutely need to know, the horrible experience has been through.
As a survivor of sexual abuse, a parent, a mental health therapist and a Trauma Recovery Coach, I know that it is absolutely heartbreaking when our children are sexually assaulted. It is normal to feel powerless. But we have a lot of power that we must exercise in order to help them recover. These five things are a place to begin. I promise that if you focus on listening to your son he will tell you what else he needs you to do to help him heal.
Photo: Flickr/Sherif Salama